The Tell-Tale Heart

Today’s factismal: The typical mammal’s heart will beat about 1,000,000,000 times in its lifetime.

Hearts. Every species has ’em from the smallest worm to the largest whale.  They move blood around the body, transporting nutrients and removing toxins. And, strangely enough, it doesn’t matter if the critter’s heart squeezes in five part harmony or thump-a-thump-a-thump-a’s the blood about; every mammal tends to have a heart that beats about a billion times in a lifetime.

A side view of the nose of a humpback whale (My camera)

A side view of the nose of a humpback whale
(My camera)

And that makes things very interesting indeed; based on that and the typical pulserate, you can estimate the average lifetime of a species. For example, the fastest heartbeat belongs to the tiny little Etruscan shrew whose heart clicks along at 835 beats per minute; that means that they typically live about 2 years and three months. And the slowest is 18 beats per minute in the blue whale, whcih gives it a lifetime of about 105 years. The average human has a heart rate of about 70 beats per minute which would mean that we have an average lifetime of 27 years if it weren’t for the fact that we also have the sturdiest hearts, clocking along at 2,500,000,000 beats!

Leonardo da Vicni's drawing of the human heart (Image courtesy Leonardo)

Leonardo da Vicni’s drawing of the human heart
(Image courtesy Leonardo)

Now facts like these don’t just appear from nowhere. They are carefully researched and measured by people like you. And if you’d like to be a person like you, then why not head over to Beats Per Life, a citizen science project dedicatted to discovering the heart facts for every species with a ticker. To learn more, pulse over to:

October 7 – The Straight Poop

Today’s factismal: Typhoid Mary killed at least three people and made another fifty-one ill, just by cooking without washing her hands.

The woman who would come to symbolize the need for effective medical laws was born 144 years ago today. Originally known as Mary Mallon, she would eventually come to be recognized the world over as “Typhoid Mary”, the very public face of a disease that was considered one of the world’s worst scourges.

Typhoid fever is a disease caused by bacteria that live in your gut. It lasts about a month and causes inflammation of your intestines (which isn’t nearly as much fun as it sounds like) along with a high fever, a slow heartbeat and bloody nose; during the later stages, it also causes diarrhea, which leads to dehydration and is the most common cause of death. For most of the sufferers, typhoid fever is a temporary inconvenience but it can be deadly. Every year, it infects an estimated 24 million people and kills about 200,000 people. Fortunately, the introduction of chlorination to the American water supply has reduced the local infection rate to near zero.

But back in 1900, there was no water in the water supply. Not that it would have done much good, as Mary didn’t believe in washing her hands. Not after she used the restroom and not before she started cooking. (I will now pause so you can all say “Eew!”). And, to make matters worse, Mary’s body had come to an arrangement with the bacteria that caused typhoid; they wouldn’t kill her and she wouldn’t worry about them. As a result, Mary was the perfect carrier. She’d start working for a family as a cook and then leave as soon as they all started getting ill. Over a period of seven years, she worked for ten families all of which had people come down with typhoid fever. When she was finally identified as the carrier by the local doctors, she refused to be treated for typhoid or to give up cooking. As a result, she was held as a “medical prisoner” for three years until she promised to stop working as a cook.

A lurid newspaper article about Typhoid Mary

A lurid newspaper article about Typhoid Mary

Of course, her promise lasted just long enough to get her out of isolation. Once she was free,s he started cooking again and people started getting sick again. As before, every time someone became ill, she’d quit and find a new job. Her continual job changes made it more difficult for the medical establishment to find her but they finally did in 1915. This time, she was confined for life. Though she was allowed visitors, they were forbidden to touch her or to accept so much as a glass of water from her hands for fear of spreading the disease. Her intransigence did have one good side-benefit; it forced the federal and state officials to recognize the danger that a carrier could pose to unsuspecting innocents. Thanks to her unwashed spree, there are now laws on the books of every state governing when and how a person can be held to prevent the spreading of a disease.

Of course, typhoid fever isn’t the only disease that can be spread by contaminated water. If you’d like to help scientists and medical practitioners by monitoring the water quality and purity in your neighborhood, then flow over to the World Water Monitoring Challenge:

October 6 – A Little Mass Makes The Sun Go Round

Today’s factismal: In 1988, Takaaki Kajita and Arthur McDonald discovered that the Sun wasn’t going to explode; they have won a Nobel Prize for their work.

If you look at the Sun (which you shouldn’t do because it can cause serious damage to your eyes), then odds are you’ll see it as a bright, burning spot in the ten seconds or so that you have before you do serious damage to your eyes (told you so). But when an astronomer looks at the Sun through a telescope with a strong filter that makes it safe to do so, she sees something different. The astronomer sees both the source of all our power and an amazing set of atomic reactions known as the solar phoenix. In this reaction, six protons combine to form a helium nucleus, two spare protons, two gamma rays, and two anti-electrons (aka positrons). But there is something else created in that reaction; something that is so small and slippery that it is almost impossible to catch: the neutrino.

The Sun generates energy by making big atoms out of little ones (Image courtesy NASA)

The Sun generates energy by making big atoms out of little ones (Image courtesy NASA)

The neutrino is special because without it, the solar phoenix reaction simply can’t happen. Even though it is so small that it would take a million of them to have the same mass as a single electron, the neutrino is essential to the solar phoenix and many other nuclear reactions. It is created in nuclear reactors as a byproduct of fission; roughly 4.5% of the energy in a nuclear reactor is lost as neutrinos! And the neutrino is created by particle accelerators. When they smash two tiny protons or electrons together, they make even smaller bits, one of which is the neutrino. Neutrinos are made in so many ways that they are the second most common particle in the Universe (after the photon), and may be responsible for the “missing mass” known popularly as Dark Matter.

Neutrinos are very, very, very, very, very, very small

Neutrinos are very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very small

The neutrino is special in another way, too. It is the only particle that has been the cause of five Nobel Prizes. The first went to Enrico Fermi in 1938, who predicted its existence in 1933 based on a “missing” amount of energy in what physics wonks call slow neutron reactions (this also led to the discovery of the weak force); amusingly, Fermi’s paper was rejected by the leading scientific journal of the day as being “too remote from reality”. The second was given in 1995 to Clyde Cowan, Frederick Reines, F. B. Harrison, H. W. Kruse, and A. D. McGuire who discovered the neutrino in 1956. The third went to Leon M. Lederman, Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger in 1988 for their discovery in 1962 that there was more than one type of neutrino; physicists refer to the three types as flavors because whimsy. The fourth Nobel Prize for neutrino-related work was given in 2002 to Raymond Davis, Jr. and Masatoshi Koshiba for their detection of neutrinos from a supernova; today, the field they founded is known as neutrino astronomy. And the fifth prize (thus far) was awarded this year to Takaaki Kajita and Arthur McDonald who proved that neutrinos change flavors as they move.

The solar phoenix reaction. Rhe little mm are neutrinos being given off in the first stage.

The solar phoenix reaction. The little νs are neutrinos being given off in the first stage.

That is important because until 1988, there was serious concern that the Sun might be going out; about half of the astrophysicists thought it would be with a whimper and the other half thought it would be with a bang. That was because we weren’t detecting the right number of neutrinos from the Sun. Even though the neutrino is so small and interacts too weakly with other matter that it is almost impossible to catch, the Sun puts out so many neutrinos (roughly 1.3 x 1018 each second, or 185 million for every person on Earth) that we can still see some of them. Only we weren’t seeing enough of them. Though we knew that neutrinos had different flavors, the Standard Model in physics said that the neutrinos should stay the same flavor; discovering that they changed flavors would mean that the Standard Model was wrong.

The Sudbury Neutrino Observation detector being installed (Image courtesy CoolCosmos)

The Sudbury Neutrino Observation detector being installed
(Image courtesy CoolCosmos)

And in 1988, using neutrinos captured from reactions in the atmosphere and neutrinos from the Sun’s core, two teams led by Takaaki Kajita and Arthur McDonald discovered that neutrinos do indeed change flavor. The Standard Model was wrong (and the Sun was saved). Thanks to their work, we are learning more about how these small but vital particles help the Universe go round. And this year, they were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work.

If you’d like to learn more about particle physics and maybe do a little prize-worthy work of your own, why not head over to LHC@Home? This website, offered by the same folks who invented the internet, has several different ways to get involved in the search more new and even more interesting particles. To learn more, zip on over to:

October 5 – Read Any Good Books Lately?

Today’s Factismal: The Codex Sinaiticus (“paper book from Sinai”) was discovered 156 years ago; we are still discovering new parts today.

There is an old adage that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. For anthropologists, that is doubly true – not only do they look for treasures like the riches of King Tut, but they also dig through piles of trash called middens looking for clues as to how people once lived. And sometimes the two collide.

That was the case for the Codex Sinaiticus. Constantin von Tischendorf was an archeologist that would have made Indiana Jones proud. He was a renowned scholar who read Ancient Greek and Aramaic and who was willing to take long, dangerous journeys in search of priceless manuscripts. And in the Greek monastery at Mount Sinai, he hit the jackpot.

The Book of Lamentations (Image courtesy

The Book of Lamentations
(Image courtesy

While digging through a trash basket, he found scraps of what appeared to be very old paper with Bible verses written in Ancient Greek. He asked the monks why the papers had been thrown in the trash; you can imagine his horror when he was told that the paper was worthless and being used to start fires! Tischendorf convinced the abbot to give him the paper and not to burn any more old manuscripts until he had an opportunity to look them over. And, though it took him fifteen years and three more trips, he eventually rescued what is widely regarded to be one of the most complete copies of the original Bible ever found.

Known today as the Codex Sinaiticus (“paper book from Sinai”), the ancient text has helped scholars understand how the text has changed over the centuries and to trace the history of the writing of the Bible. It has also shed a strong light on how manuscripts were created in the period of its writing (somewhen between 325 CE and 360 CE). The Codex Sinaiticus was transcribed by at least four different scribes and proof-read by several others; there are literally thousands of hand-written notes in the margins correcting mistakes that had been made.

Ecclesiastes with corrections in red (Image courtesy lll)

Ecclesiastes with corrections in red
(Image courtesy

Interestingly, the work on the Codex Sinaiticus and other ancient manuscripts continues today. The papyrus and vellum of ancient documents has been rained on, scorched by fire, eaten by bugs, and left out in the Sun to fade. As a result, only fragments are readable by scholars. However, their work is being made easier now by citizen scientists who volunteer to identify patterns that the anthropologists can use to translate the works. If you’d like to help, then consider going to Ancient Lives:

October 4 – Water You Worried ABout

A satellite image of Venice (Image courtesy NASA)

A satellite image of Venice
(Image courtesy NASA)

Venice is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Though the city itself dates back to about 200 BCE, the bulk of the buildings were erected during the height of the Reniassance when Venice was a military and political powerhouse that controlled half of the Mediterranean. Thanks to human ingenuity, the original city was built on mud flats in a lagoon which made it very easy to defend. And thanks to human stubborness, the city stayed there even when the buildings started to sink in the mud; the locals just created canals to channel the water and started adding new floors as the old ones dropped below the waters. Since Venice was founded, the local sea level has risen by more than twenty feet.

Venice is a beautiful warning (My camera)

Venice is a beautiful warning
(My camera)

That twenty feet is a very interesting number to climatologists; it is about the amount of sea level rise that we can expect if the ice covering much of Greenland were to be added to the oceans. Right now, the world’s oceans will definitely rise about five inches by the end of the century; that won’t be enough to turn New York City into another Venice, but it will definitely have some fairly important effects. Storm surges will be higher, which means more damage from hurricanes. Beach erosion will happen faster, which means more costly dredging to keep chipping channels open (and more damage from hurricanes). And there will be more salt water invasion of aquifers, which will kill many plants and lead to more damage from hurricanes.



October 2 – Raise Your Hand

Today’s factismal: Contrary to armchair astronomers, Betelgeuse doesn’t mean “armpit of the giant”.

If you look into the sky early tomorrow morning, you’ll see one of the world’s most easily recognized constellations: Orion, the giant. Named by the Greeks after a son of Poseidon who liked to hunt, the constellation takes part in three different “sky stories”. In the first, he is aided by his two dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor (“Big dog” and “Little dog”) as they hunt the rabbit Lepus who hides in the grass at his feet. In the second, Orion is being cured by the great doctor Ophiuchus (“the snake”) of the venom from Scorpius (“the scorpion”) who stung him after Orion upset Gaea by trying to kill one of every animal on Earth; that’s why Ophiucus stands between Orion and Scorpius and why Scorpius is never in the sky at the same time as Orion. And, in the third story, Orion is trying to fight his way past Taurus (“the bull”) so that he can woo the Pleiades (“the seven sister”) who aren’t thrilled with the prospect of being chased by a guy who has just been hunting and is recovering from a scorpion sting.

M42 (Orion Nebula) Over Virginia (My camera)

M42 (Orion Nebula) Over Virginia (My camera)

But perhaps the most interesting story about Orion has nothing to do with the constellation; instead, it describes how the bright red star in Orion’s left arm got its name. Many armchair astronomers gleefully repeat the story that the name came from the Arabic for “armpit of the giant”. Unfortunately, that’s not true; it actually comes from the Arabic for “hand of the giant”. Either way, Betelgeuse (bay-TELL-gerz) is a fascinating star that will soon (within a million years or so) explode and become bright enough to see in the daytime.

The second-most interesting story about Orion has to do with its “sword”. Look at the fuzzy patch about halfway down the scabbard; astronomy wonks call that the Orion Nebula. See anything interesting? Now look at it through a pair of binoculars. Now what do you see? That’s right; it is a stellar nursery where hundreds of new stars are forming right now. Cool, no?

M4 (Orion) seen from Houston; the light pollution wipes out most of the fainter stars (My camera)

M42 (Orion) seen from Houston; the light pollution wipes out most of the fainter stars
(My camera)

Unfortunately, there are some places on Earth where you can’t even see Betelgeuse in the night sky! That’s because light pollution from cities has wiped out all but the very brightest stars, making it hard for us to enjoy the beauty of the night sky and for animals like sea turtles and moths and dung beetles to navigate; it is even making mother wallabies wait to give birth. Obviously, light pollution must go!

The first step in cleaning up pollution is mapping where it is. Naturally there’s a citizen science experiment for that. Called GLOBE at Night, this experiment asks you to go out once a month over the year and look at Orion. By counting the number of stars that you can see in the constellation and reporting that to the scientists, you’ll help measure light pollution. If you think you’re bright enough for this experiment, head over to:

October 1 – Bat Month

Today’s factismal: Chirp for National Bat Appreciation Month !

People love October. How do I know? That’s easy – there are over 121 different groups that have decided that October is “their month”. That’s why October is claimed for causes as diverse as National Pork Month (“the other white meat”) to Go Hog Wild – National Eat Country Ham Month (“the other, other white meat”) to National Hispanic Heritage Month (“Es Octubre!”) to National Cookie Month (and that’s good enough for me!) to National Sarcasm Month (really?). But perhaps the coolest celebration this month is National c(Nana-nana-nana-nana Bat Month!).

Spectacled bats in Australia are frugivores

Spectacled bats in Australia are frugivores (My camera)

It may seem odd to honor an animal that is so widely despised, but as is often the case, the reputation of the bat says more about the folks who fear it than it does about the animal itself. Let’s start with the fact that one out of every five mammals is a bat; obviously, these critters are doing something right! They have diversified into 1,200 species. About 900 of those are insectivores with amazingly keen hearing that they use to find and eat mosquitoes, gnats, and other noxious critters. Another 300 species that are fugivores that eat fruit, nectar, or pollen. Among the remaining 200 species or so are oddballs such as bats that eat fish (194 species), bats that eat birds (a dozen species), and bats that eat other bats (two species; the Ghost Bat of Australia and the Spectral Bat of Mexico and South America). Not surprisingly, the smaller the bat, the more likely it is to prey on small nimble things (like insects) instead of big, slow things (like fruit).

The bublebee bat, a contender for the world's smallest mammal (Image courtesy SciTechDaily)

The bublebee bat, a contender for the world’s smallest mammal (Image courtesy SciTechDaily)

No matter what bats eat, you can be sure that they eat a lot of it; it takes a lot of energy to fly about! A typical bats will eat about 1/3 of its body weight each day. To put that into perspective, a colony of 1,000 insectivorous bats will eat four tons of mosquitoes each year. And fugivorous bats are no less hungry; they’ll munch on and pollinate hundreds of plants such as coconut palms, bananas, peaches, figs, mangoes, cloves, chocolate, balsa, and agave cacti each night. All told, more than 150 different types of plants rely on bats to propagate. And in the rainforest, 90% of the plants rely on bats!

Even though bats are a vital part of our ecology, we still don’t know a lot about these critters – and that’s where you come in! Over at Bat Detective, you can learn more about these amazing mammals and find out how you can help scientists discover even more nifty things For more information, wing over to: